By Michael Whelan SM
Three months before he died on 7 March 1274, St Thomas Aquinas had an extraordinary “experience” while celebrating Mass. As a result of this “experience”, St Thomas refused to do any further work on the Summa Theologica – his major life project. The English Dominican Thomistic scholar, Brian Davies, tells us that Aquinas’ secretary, Reginald of Piperno, begged him to return to the writing. St Thomas replied: "Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me" (Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas, Oxford University Press, 1993, 9).
One of the tragedies of the Catholic Church is that St Thomas has been too often treated as someone who has found the answers to all the great questions of life. This has been a significant factor in reducing the Faith to something abstract, a body of knowledge which can be convincingly communicated through arguments. Before he is a thinker and a philosopher, St Thomas is a Christian mystic. To use the image of the parable in today’s Gospel: He found the treasure in the field – see Matthew 13:44. St Thomas’ legacy is precious, not because he gives us the answers with watertight arguments, but because he is someone who reminds us of the End of all our questioning. That End – the God of the Incarnation – is not available as the inevitable conclusion of a rational argument. Everything St Thomas lives for, writes about and speaks of, is an expression of his communion with God in Christ. Two truths come together at the heart of Sr Thomas’ life and work: Incarnation and the incomprehensibility of God.
The Irish poet, W B Yeats (1865-1939), a Protestant/agnostic, oddly enough presents us with an insight that can help us appreciate the gift of St Thomas: “I am happy and I think full of an energy, of an energy I had despaired of. It seems to me that I have found what I wanted. When I try to put all into a phrase I say, ‘Man can embody truth but he cannot know it.’ I must embody it in the completion of my life. The abstract is not life and everywhere draws out its contradictions. You can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence” (W. B. Yeats cited by John Dominic Crossan, In Parables: The Challenge of the Historical Jesus, Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1992, 118).
St Thomas and W B Yeats remind us that the parables of the treasure in the field and the finding of the pearl of great price are more experiences of being found rather than finding. These parables are not allegories. Nor are they moral stories. They are simple, open-ended stories drawn from daily living. The actors and outcomes could easily be imagined by Jesus’ listeners. They each have a plot and inner movement. We are invited to use our imaginations, so that we can be drawn into the story. We might then also be drawn a little closer to being Saints.